World Book Day: 4 March 2021

On the importance of reading

Recently my husband saw an article on Virginia Woolf and Why We Read. It included mention of the book “Genius and Ink: Virginia Woolf on How to Read”. It seems fitting that my copy will be arriving through the post today – 4th March, World Book Day 2021.

The article quotes from Woolf’s diary in which she wrote that through the act of reading she sensed that her brain was “expanding, larger and larger, throbbing quicker & quicker”. What is remarkable is that she wrote this in 1903.
A very recent article by Jessica Stillman on how the act of reading changing the way the brain works, was featured in and included reference to the observation of Harvard professor Joseph Henrich on the effects of reading: “increased your verbal memory, and thickened your corpus callosum, which is the information highway that connects the left and right hemispheres of your brain.” Was that the expanding, throbbing brain that Woolf sensed 119 years before?
That very similar observations can be formulated by a leading neuroscientist and an outstanding writer makes for a very convincing argument.

What I find not so convincing is the theory, also described in Stillman’s article, that reading can increase your empathy quotient (EQ). Although the scientists haven’t reached agreement on the finer details, the literature indicates that reading can be “an empathy workout”, boosting EQ. Now I need to giveaway my own EQ scores, but I think it helps make my point.
My pre-diagnosis assessment for autism included an EQ screening that yielded a score of 11. Anything less than 32 is significant for low empathy, so 11 is very significant. It is not that I have no feelings for others, nor that I fail to appreciate their needs, it is that what I feel is quantitative rather than qualitative. I see a need and deal with it. That’s the beginning and end of it. It goes no deeper.

What has this to do with reading? Of my four degrees my most common field of study was English Literature. It was my main within the BEd (Hons), I studied the Romantics and Shakespeare for the BA, and I gained a research MA (English Literature). I gained a distinction in the OU Creative Writing course. My go-to chill out CD is Chaucer’s General Prologue. Favourite writers include Stephen King, Dickens, and Margaret Atwood; absolute favourite book “Jane Eyre”. At the moment I’m listening to Agatha Christie on audio, and have Mark Billingham to look forward to. And yet when it comes to real people in real situations in the real world?

To give some balance – and some suggestions – for World Book Day, here are some of the books and writers I feel would sit well on any reading list.

Alphabet of favourite writers:
Atwood / Ali
Brontë / Bennett
Carter / Camus / Conrad
Dickens / Dahl / Dumas / Dostoyevsky
Fitzgerald / Fowles
Graves / Golding / Galsworthy
Henry / Hugo / Huxley
King / Kafka
Lawrence / Lee
Miller / Mitford / Marquez
Orwell / Osborne
Pratchett / Poe
Shields / Shriver / Steinbeck / Saki
Thackeray / Tey
Weldon / Waugh / Wilde

Best Books about love:
The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald: unrequited, obsessive, love
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte: love through struggle and eventual fulfilment
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: exploration into the extremes of idealised love
The Life and Loves of a She Devil, Fay Weldon: revengeful love
The Gift of the Magi (short story), O Henry: unconditional love

Pick up a book today, just to lose yourself in its pages for a few moments. It doesn’t need to be a physical book, it doesn’t need to be fiction, it doesn’t even need to have words. As long as it makes you think, or feel, or both. Give yourself permission to take time out. Reading is not time wasted. It is not an opt-out of the real world. And a book will give back to you more than you invest with it.
Now that’s a result.

Stay well. Stay open to the world of others’ words and others’ thoughts.
Marilyn X